Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Dioxin War

Book Review: 'The Dioxin War' by Robert Allen

Although dioxin was a major cause of Toxic Disasters throughout the interval from the mid- 1960s to the mid-1980s, there is a surprising dearth of books on the topic that are aimed at a general audience.

'The Dioxin War' (201 pp), published in the UK in 2004 by Pluto Press, remains one of the few narratives about dioxin aimed at a lay readership (as opposed to a large volume of technical books on dioxin).

'The Dioxin War' is first and foremost a polemic, one aimed at Monsanto, Merck, Dow Chemical Company, Boehringer Ingelheim, and other chemical companies. The book also is withering in its criticism of agencies such as the US EPA, and the small but influential groups of scientists who ally with the chemical companies and work in concert with them to stymie efforts to impose stricter regulations against the dispersal of contaminants.

'The Dioxin War' is organized into chapter that cover - in loose chronological order - efforts by conscientious scientists, activists, and lawyers to expose the truth about the toxicity of dioxin in the face of determined campaigns by the chemical companies to have dioxin classified as a mild poison that causes, at most, acne.

Some of the more famous Toxic Disasters of the 70s and early 80s are covered here, including Seveso and Times Beach. But author Allen also mentions incidents that I was not aware of, such as the infamous Holmsburg prison experiments done in 1965 - 1966 (in exchange for a payment of $10,000, Albert Kligman, a physician hired by Dow Chemical, painted dioxin on the skin of inmates).

I also was not aware of the 1979 train derailment that took place outside the small Missouri town of Sturgeon; 20,000 gallons of a wood preservative - produced by Monsanto - spilled onto the ground. Monsanto representatives told the townspeople there was minimal health risks associated with the spill..........but the townspeople noticed that the EPA workers at the spill site were wearing spacesuits..........

Nor was I aware that - possibly for decades - Lysol disinfectant spray contained dioxin. Lysol was widely used in the decades before the advent of the birth control Pill for contraceptive and 'feminine hygiene' purposes..........

I also was unaware of a dioxin disaster that took place in County Tipperary, Ireland, in August 1978. John Hanrahan, a dairy farmer, noticed that a strange-smelling fog had formed on his land, and his animals were coughing and tearing. In 1980, many animals on the Hanrahan farm, and those of neighboring farms, were dying from wasting disease; many cows were delivering stillborn or malformed calves.

Hanrahan suspected that the Merck, Sharpe, and Dohme plant in nearby Ballydine was to blame; the factory, which had opened in 1976, was a major area employer and enjoyed good relations with county politicians and bureaucrats. 

In the early 80s, after Hanrahan filed a lawsuit against Merck, it was revealed that the factory's incinerator was improperly operated, and as a consequence, a variety of toxic halogenated compounds were being regularly discharged from the plant.Dioxin was detected in the milk from Hanrahan's cattle.

Hanrahan's litigation against Merck became one of the lengthiest and most expensive legal battle in Irish history. 

After finishing 'The Dioxin War' I had mixed feelings about its worthiness as an investigation into dioxin and its role in public health and environmental health. The book certainly contains ample documentation in the form of extensive Notes and references which take up about a fifth of its pages.

However, the narrative tends to awkwardly jump back and forth between topics and timelines, and regularly interrupts passages of straight reportage with lengthy segments that are editorial in nature.

Author Allen also displays more than a little naivety. In the chapter devoted to the contamination of Missouri in the 1970s through the actions of 'waste oil' applications by Russel Bliss, Allen too readily believes Bliss's contention that he was just a good 'ole boy who 'didn't know nothing' about 'chemistry'........despite the considerable evidence to the contrary.

It's also obvious that, with a 2004 publication date, 'The Dioxin War' lacks more timely coverage of events over the past 13 years.

When all is considered, however, despite its flaws, 'The Dioxin War' remains a reasonably good overview of a subject that is difficult to cover in terms of both technical and sociopolitical aspects. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Metal Hurlant, Blade Runner, and French sci-fi comics

Metal Hurlant, Blade Runner, and French sci-fi comics

As the 40th (!) anniversary of Heavy Metal approaches, it's as good a time as any to think back on how that magazine changed the field of graphic art and science fiction.

Here is a link to a well written and informative article about the pop culture origins of Metal Hurlant and its influence on the sci-fi movies of the 70s and 80s.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps

2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps
by Jacque Sadoul

Jacque Sadoul (1934 – 2013) was a French author of many fiction and nonfiction books. He was also an avid collector of science fiction memorabilia, and in 1973, he published a book on the artwork in the sf pulps, titled Hier, l'an 2000: [i.e. deux mille]; l'illustration de science-fiction des annees 30

In 1975 US publisher Regnery released the book in English (176 pp) as '2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of the Science Fiction Pulps'.

In 1975 the Nostalgia Craze was well underway in the US, which may have explained why a English-language version of the book was published. But it was also significant in that, back in that long-ago era, some publishers were beginning to realize that a critical mass of sf fans was slowly building....... and these people were quite willing to obtain merchandise that fueled their 'fandom'.

'2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of the Science Fiction Pulps' is organized into sections covering Galactic Empires, Robots, Spaceships, Women of the Cosmos, Weapons, Monsters, Machines of the Future, and Cities of the Future.

The book's layout is reader friendly, with some full-page illustrations. There are a handful of color illustrations.

One thing '2000 A.D.' does well is to provide synopses of the story depicted in each of the illustrations. This allows the reader to better understand the context of the illustration, and provides insight into the artist decided to render the scene. I only wish other books on sf and fantasy illustration would adopt this approach.

As far as the artwork is concerned, needless to say, the 'greats' of the pulp era all are represented here: Virgil Finlay, H. W. Wesso, Elliot Dold, Leo Morey, Frank R. Paul, Alexander Leydenfrost, and Earl Bergey.

There are some surprises to be gained by perusing '2000 A.D.'. For me, it was the work of Lawrence Sterne Stevens (1886-1960) whose draftsmanship equaled that of Finlay. 

While there are some magazine covers that are badly underexposed when reproduced in black and white, overall, the quality of the reproductions appearing in '2000 A.D.' is high, particularly for a book published in 1973, when many of the original images were already several decades old, and there was no such thing as scanning originals at a high dpi index. 

One thing that struck me as I looked through the book is the artistic skill of the represented artists. The quality of the draftsmanship of illustrators like Stevens and Finlay is very impressive, employing a variety of stippling and shading techniques that are being forgotten by modern illustrators, as these methods are difficult to reproduce using computer-based drawing software.

The skills of these pulp-era artists are even more impressive when you consider that these illustrations were printed onto the cheapest grades of paper.

More than a few of these illustrations show a meticulous level of detail that - in my mind, at least - qualifies these pulp magazine artists as among the most accomplished artists in 20th century illustration.

While there are quite a few books available on illustration in the sf pulps, '2000 A.D.' is a worthy entry to the field despite its comparatively advanced age. Given that copies can be purchased from your usual online retailers for very reasonable prices, this is one book well worth picking up. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

Book Review: Killing Horses

Book Review: 'Killing Horses' by Judy Piatt

In the Spring of 1971 Judy Piatt (1938 – 2013), a 32 year-old single mother of two young daughters, was the part owner and operator of Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mills, a village northwest of St. Louis, Missouri.

Shenandoah Stables, besides housing the horses of Piatt and those horse owners who chose to board their animals there, had an dirt-floor arena used for horse shows. As May of 1971 unfolded, the dust raised in the arena whenever it was used was enough of a problem for Piatt to decide to have it oiled.

Among the regular attendees at horse shows at the stables were Russell and Evelyn Bliss, who owned their own stables in nearby Ellisville. Russell Bliss was an affluent, self-made businessman who specialized in picking up and disposing of ‘waste oil’ from service stations, power plants, and chemical plants. One method that Bliss used to dispose of the oil was to spray it on dirt roads and arenas to prevent dust from forming.

At 7:20 am on May 26, a Bliss tanker truck pulled up at Shenandoah Stables and the driver, Gary Lambarth, sprayed an estimated 1500 – 2000 gallons of oil onto the arena. The fee: $150.

Immediately upon the application of the oil, Piatt noticed that the oil had a powerful acrid odor that stung her eyes. Upon questioning, Lambarth told that the oil contained ‘special stuff’ for ‘special customers’. 

Within the week, Piatt began noticing dead birds in the vicinity of the stables……her cats had lost patches of their fur and developed open lesions in their skin….and Mama cat’s new litter all had died. Then Mama cat died. Soon all twelve of the ‘stable cats’ had died, yowling in agony as their faces swelled and pus oozed from their closed eyelids.

Then Piatt noticed that her daughters Andi and Lori had developed a strange acne – marked by blackheads – on their faces and chests.

In early June, Ruff, the family dog, became seriously ill. His fur began falling out and sores, oozing pus, developed all over his body. Ruff died despite veterinary treatment.

As June turned to July, an increasingly uneasy Piatt was stunned to see her beloved horses becoming ill. Her veterinarian, James Evans, was unable to provide anything more than supportive treatment….which did nothing to stop the illness.

The horses began dying. They lost their appetites, had diarrhea, stumbled and fell, developed skin lesions and sores. 

Evans suspected that the oil sprayed on the arena contained a poison. Autopsies conducted at the University of Missouri Veterinary School noted that the internal organs of the dead horses displayed severe pathologies associated with some form of poisoning.

Piatt herself became ill. And then in August, six year-old Andi became seriously ill, hemorrhaged blood, and was hospitalized. Over the next several months she lost half her body weight.

The remainder of 1971….and then 1972…….and 1973……..turned into nightmares in which more horses died, Piatt and her daughters got sicker, and Piatt was forced to close the Stables and move. She confronted Russell Bliss about what sort of contaminant might have been present in the oil used to spray the arena at Shenandoah Stables. Bliss denied that the oil was contaminated – as far as he was concerned, it was ‘plain ole waste oil’.

What Judy Piatt didn't know is that Bliss earned considerable income from applying 'waste oil' as a dust control measure. And one of his major clients was the town of Times Beach, located 17 miles southwest of St Louis............

'Killing Horses' (400 pp; Lightnin' Ridge Books, Missouri) is based on decades of notes, photographs, and other documents Judy Piatt assembled as part of a lawsuit she had filed against Bliss and his company, and later, as an environmental activist.

In short chapters, Piatt delivers a first-person narrative of her ordeal. It is clear from the start of the deaths of the animals at her stables that the veterinary and public health infrastructures were completely unprepared to deal with mass poisoning events; the EPA, which began operating in December 1970, simply was not a presence. If not for the dogged efforts of a team of CDC investigators, the cause of the contamination likely would never have been discovered.

'Killing Horses', which was written entirely by Piatt with no editorial assistance, is not a perfect book. Many of the chapters recounting the demises of one treasured horse or pony or colt after the other are probably going to seem tedious to readers who are not horse lovers. 

But the final third of the book, when Piatt and Shenandoah Stables co-owner Frank Hampel begin conducting their own investigation of Bliss's operation, is an interesting - and very alarming - account of how the illicit dumping of toxic chemicals was widespread across Missouri.

The verdict ? Given the dearth of books dealing with the firsthand consequences of the Toxic 70s, 'Killing Horses' represents a worthwhile narrative. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Consumers

The Consumers
by Gerry Boudreau (story) and Jun Lofamia (art)
from Creepy No. 136 (March 1982)

This grim tale of global cooling and environmental disaster is ably illustrated by the Filippino artist Jun Lofamia, who primarily did work for comics and magazines in the Philippines. During the 70s and 80s he provided illustrations for US publishers like Warren and DC. In 2014 Lofamia provided cover art for the IDW series Black Dynamite.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Poison that Fell from the Sky

Book Review: 'The Poison that Fell from the Sky' by John G. Fuller

At 12:37 in the afternoon of Saturday, July 10, 1977, people living in the vicinity of the town of Meda, Italy, heard a muffled explosion coming from the grounds of the ICMESA chemical plant.  

A cloud of white smoke rose into the air above the plant, and in the ensuing hours, drifted over Meda and the nearby towns of Seveso, Desion, and Cesano Maderno. At least 1,000 acres - much of it consisting of small farms and residential areas - was contaminated by the cloud.

The residents of the affected areas described seeing a 'fog' that left a wet residue where it touched and had a bitter, acrid odor. Within hours of the passage of the cloud, the residents noticed that the vegetation began to display patterns of yellow spotting.

After the cloud dissipated, the residents of Seveso and the other affected towns shrugged and resumed eating lunch, and harvesting the fruits, vegetables, and livestock that many families raised to supplement their diets.

But before nightfall, many residents who had been in the path of the cloud began to notice health problems, including the emergence of sores and lesions on their skin. Other residents noticed small animals dying from the effects of the cloud; some even saw birds literally dropping from the sky.

A day after the explosion at the plant and the formation of the toxic cloud, the director of the ICMESA plant asked the mayor of Seveso to convey a warning to the town's residents: they should not eat any fruit from their trees. 

As the week began, more and more residents began to complain of illness associated with the passage of the cloud. On Friday, July 16, a two year-old baby was hospitalized with weeping sores all over his body.

As the residents of Seveso - and then an entire region of Lombardy, Italy - were about to learn, they were the victims of the greatest toxic disaster ever to strike Europe.....

In 'The Poison the Fell from the Sky' (first published in hardback in 1977; this 163 pp, Berkley Books paperback was released in January 1979) John G. Fuller provides firsthand reportorial coverage of the accident (he was in France in 1976, and was assigned by The Reader's Digest to investigate the Seveso disaster). 

Fuller toured the Seveso region later in the Summer and early Fall of 1976, and spoke with many of the victims, ICMESA / Roche officials, journalists, and public health officials.

Fuller - an accomplished writer, whose other nonfiction books include Fever, a 70s classic about the investigation of an outbreak of a deadly viral disease - communicates the atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that fell over much of Italy due to the disaster.

An unavoidable drawback of the book is that, being written comparatively early in aftermath of the disaster, it cannot provide an analysis of the long-term complications of the disaster. But Fuller does include a final chapter that examines the disturbing history of toxic disasters up to 1976 and highlights how the negligence of the chemical industry was often a key trigger for these disasters.

Summing up, 'The Poison that Fell from the Sky' remains a worthy account of the Seveso disaster. It's worth getting if you see it on the shelves of your used bookstore.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Mighty Samson: The Pollution People

Mighty Samson
'The Pollution People'
Gold Key / Whitman, December 1974

In keeping with the 'Toxic 70s' theme for this month of January 2017, here's a story featuring Samson, a superhero appearing in his own series with Gold Key / Whitman in the early 70s. In this issue, Samson wanders a postapocalyptic landscape, where mutants created by pollution harbor enmity towards those who corrupted the Earth.

Gold Key was not a participant in the Comics Code Authority, which meant their comics could have 'violent' content - such as the shedding of monster blood in this comic - that was prohibited in books from Marvel and DC.